What are you doing up so early? Father James gave my wheelchair a gentle push.
I couldnt sleep, I said. What about you?
He hesitated, and I could tell even before he spoke that he was inventing some excuse for being in the hospital when he normally would be getting ready to serve at the 6 a.m. Mass, generally attended by the staff at Warm Springs either on their way to work or on their way home.
Did something happen to one of the babies? I asked. I saw Dr. Iler.
Dr. Iler was in the Babies Ward, he said.
Were you there for a sick baby? I asked.
And I suddenly remembered our recent conversation in catechism class about last rites. I had been fascinated and repelled by the idea of a priest, a man in a stiff white collar and black robe but still a man, ridding the dying of leftover sins so that, fresh as a daisy, as my mother would say, the dead could pass into heaven. I loved the Roman Catholic Church, with the body and blood of Jesus popped into our mouths and incense burning and bells and chanting in Latin. But passing into heaven held no appeal at all.
Were you in the Babies Ward doing last rites? I asked, my mind running through the cribs of babies, Eliza Jane, little Maria, Tommy Boy, Rosie, Sue Sue, Violet Blue, Johnny Go-Go, all those babies of mine with the nicknames I had given them.
Dont go into the Babies Ward today, Mary.
Can you tell me which baby? I asked.
He tousled my hair.
Not just now, he said, and I watched him walk away in his black cassock, his muddy shoes showing below the skirt, his long thinning hair flying above his head in threads.
Halfway across the courtyard, he turned and, with his cassock blowing behind him, walked back toward me.
Mary, he said, kneeling so we were face to face. I know youre thinking youll go to the Babies Ward as soon as Im out of sight, but you cant. This was not a patient you knew.
Instinctively I didnt believe him.
I watched until he was out of sight and then I crossed the courtyard on a diagonal toward the movie theater not an actual movie theater but a large room where current Hollywood films were shown to the patients, mostly children, either sitting in wheelchairs or lying on stretchers in body casts, everyone in the hospital who could breathe without an iron lung, in rows of white sheets.
The next afternoon, a Saturday, I would be going with Joey Buckley to see High Noon that was the description of my Saturday I would tell my parents during our Sunday telephone call, always just after noon, a ritual of longing and dread.
I went to see High Noon with Joey Buckley, Id say. We do everything together lately.
I knew it would please them to hear that I had a best and steady friend, a Joey Buckley whom theyd met but didnt know, filling the gap their absence had left. It would please them to think of me doing the things that normal children in the sixth grade did, like going to movies.
It wasnt necessarily true about Joey Buckley. Id usually be in line with all the girls from the Girls Ward in wheelchairs, and wed follow the stretchers moved by push boys, and behind would be the line of wheelchairs from the Boys Ward, and then the grown-ups who had the freedom to move, if they could move, out of the lineup. When I saw Joey, he would be in a line of wheelchairs behind me, several boys away.
I saved stories for my parents to make them happy, to soften their sadness over not being with me, which I knew they wished they could be, which I wanted to believe they wished they could be. And the stories had some truth, along with the addition of a happy ending. I added the happy ending perhaps by nature, perhaps in my own defense. A child can cover a multitude of sadness simply by inventing happiness, can escape the kind of sympathy that smothers her spirit, and save her fledgling self in its slow and lonely process of definition.
Copyright © 2007 by Susan Richards Shreve. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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